Korpiklaani’s Jarkko Aaltonen: “We’re Basically a Reggae Band, Only Faster and Louder”

At the end of folk metal’s long and raucous party, Korpiklaani will probably be the last band standing. Over the course of almost three decades, the Finnish six-piece have raged where others have passed out in their seats, dedicating their lives to making cinematic, accordion-drenched metal that sounds like it was written for a party in a swamp. Now on their eleventh album, the band show no signs of stopping — though they have matured in their own right, reaching a point where they don’t feel shackled to any specific sound or topic.

Korpiklaani’s latest, Jylhä, stands as a monument to the band’s growth. While the record contains some of their classic spring-heeled party songs, it also features moments of sweeping emotion and epic scope. This concept is one that’s embodied in its title, a Finnish word which invokes rugged outdoor majesty while hinting at a deeper understanding of these concepts. For fans who are used to Korpiklaani’s jaunty drinking songs, this might be a departure from their traditional sound — but this far into their careers, the band don’t necessarily care.

“We do exactly what we want to,” says bassist Jarkko Aaltonen. “We don’t really think of it that way, like we’d like to do fast punk songs but people require something else as well. I think that is a road to doom, anyway. Because whatever we release, half of the people are complaining that the band is doing the same album we’ve done ten times before, while the other half are complaining that the band is not what we used to be. You can never entertain everyone, so the only thing you can do is entertain yourself. Do the stuff that you want to do, whether others may or may not like that. At least then you’ve been honest with yourself. I think that’s a main point in whatever you do, not just music.”

The term Jylhä gets at this idea of majesty, but it’s a more complicated Finnish term than that. What inspired you to choose it for the album title?

Musically, it feels like that. We originally we had a different title in our minds that was close to that, but it was a word that we were worried would sound very rude in some other languages. That would’ve best fit our lyrical themes, which is dead people. But this is a word that is more often used to describe a certain kind of landscape or scenery. It gives everything you need to know or talk about when you say it. In Finland, they have a certain kind of imagery in their head when they hear the word. We knew that we made a mistake when we picked that word, because now we have to try to explain that to everyone!

We don’t have those words as much in English — words that get at a bigger feeling, or evoke specific images.

Definitely when it comes to adjectives [in Finnish], that’s a problem. Because they describe something, and then you have imagery in your head, but you don’t know how to explain what you mean. Especially when that other language is not your native tongue. But for an American, if you think about the Grand Canyon — Grand Canyon imagery is definitely ‘jylhä.’ 

How much of the new album was done before the pandemic?

The album was written before anything happened. We were scheduled to be in the studio pretty much when everything started to happen, like March or whatever. So basically, in that sense, it didn’t change anything, except that suddenly we had all the time in the world. Everything was canceled, so for the first time ever, we had time to do a proper pre-production. We went through the guitar parts, the drum parts, everything, before we entered the studio. So when we actually entered the recording studio, we were so well prepared. The studio session was really easy in that sense.

Korpiklaani are a band I associate with big live shows — has it been difficult to not be promoting the album with a tour?

In the beginning, it was nice — I can’t deny that. Being on the road all the time and having to be somewhere doing something all the time…at the beginning of this you think, Oh, it’s going to last for a month or two. It’s nice to have some free weekends, go see your friends and have a few beers with some people other than the band. But things started getting annoying when we realized it wasn’t going to go away. Then, we realized that we’re in a band, and the band is supposed to be playing — so the fun ended quite quickly. It’s been weird, because for the fifteen years I’ve been in the band, we’ve been touring constantly — two, three tours in a year, plus the summer festivals. For the summer, I was happy, because I could go everywhere, I could do what I want to…but then where the hell do you go, because there’s nothing going on?

Were there any songs that, looking back at them, you’re happy you had the extra time to work on them?

These have always songs where, when I hear the demo, I think, ‘This sounds different…this is something that we haven’t done before.’ Sometimes, I even get skeptical. ‘Is this good now? Is this too far away from what we do? I’m not sure if this is us.’ And then when the whole band gets together and we finish the track, I realize, whatever we do, it always sounds like us. It doesn’t matter if we do a reggae track or whatever, it’ll always sound like us. I think we’re in a good position in that way — we can do pretty much everything, and it always sounds like us. 

Now I desperately want to hear the Korpiklaani reggae album.

That reminds me of an old interview with Lemmy somewhere, where, describing Motörhead’s music, he said, “Basically, we’re a blues band only faster and louder.” So maybe we’re basically a reggae band, only faster and louder!

There’s a track on the album, “Tuuleton,” that’s exceptionally big and beautiful. Can you tell me about it?

The lyrics are one of these sadder things, because it’s basically about a bird who can’t fly. You can connect that to anything about people who are not happy. It is one of those songs that I think shows quite well how far we have come from the first few albums, musically and compositionally. It is a quite well-written song.

You’ve also recently released a video for “Leväluhta,” in which the band are playing in the swamp. Is it a pain, heading out into the wilderness to shoot all these videos?

Actually, you can get pretty close to there with a car. It was doable, except for the drums. Luckily, I wasn’t responsible then — I was helping, badly! It was a weird place to be at, this swamp. But we had beer! For once, I wasn’t driving, so I was actually getting more and more drunk during the day, which was quite hilarious.

Along those lines, in America, Korpiklaani are often associated with drinking music due to songs like “Beer Beer” and “Vodka.” Is that something you ever feel the need to inject into your music?

This has always been the same with us — all those alcohol songs we have done, we’ve never rally planned, and they have sort of become our trademark. People expect those, and it would be quite easy to force yourself to write something like that. Anyway, we are running out of alcohols — we have done vodka, we have done tequila, we have done beer. Wine, we haven’t done, but probably won’t. But we have never felt there was ever any need to do this stuff. Like everything we’ve done, the songs come as they come.

That’s even crazier, because it means you’re not even trying. You’re just living the booze life.

I forget which old writer it was — maybe Oscar Wilde — who was asked how you become a good writer, and he said, “Write what you know!”

Korpiklaani’s Jylhä comes out Friday, February 5th, via Nuclear Blast, and is available for preorder.

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Words by Chris Krovatin